An NFL regular season unlike any before it has drawn to a close. The 14-team playoff field is set, and on Saturday, the first three matchups will kick off.
But for the 18 other teams that missed the playoffs, now begins the long offseason.
Some organizations must start over completely. Others will continue the rebuilding and retooling already in progress. For most, the offseason to-do list is quite extensive.
The evaluation process begins this week, and from there, the best courses of action are determined.
Here’s a look at the pressing question facing each of the non-playoff teams as their officials and coaches get to work.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have a lot of questions but a lot of opportunity. (Photo: Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports)
Tracker: Black Monday: Chargers fire Anthony Lynn. Jaguars drop Doug Marrone. John Elway taking new role.
Who should lead the charge?
Owner Shad Khan first must hire a new general manager and head coach. Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has, according to media reports, told people that he believes the coaching job is his if he wants it. This is a highly coveted job because Jaguars hold the top overall pick, a number of other premium draft selections, close to $80 million in cap space.
Is Darnold their man?
They fired Adam Gase, and after whiffing on the top pick, GM Joe Douglas must determine whether to move from Sam Darnold (the third pick of the 2018 draft), or if the Jets should stick with the USC product (who did play well late in the season), hire a head coach who believes he can maximize his talents, and use the No. 2 overall pick as capital to fortify the roster around the young QB.
Who can rebuild with limited resources?
Outside Deshaun Watson, the Texans have little to work with, and after a series of poor decisions, former coach/GM Bill O’Brien left the team with a mess: little draft capital (their No. 3 overall pick belongs to Miami) and a horrible salary cap situation. Houston must hire a GM and coach. But finding someone savvy enough to conduct a much-needed overhaul without resources could prove challenging. Someone worthy of consideration: former Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, who turned around a similar situation in Oakland.
Are Morris and Ryan in the plans?
Another team needing a head coach and GM. Raheem Morris took over for the fired Dan Quinn, and despite going 4-7 as the interim, he changed the mindset of this team and drew praise from veterans and assistants alike. The Falcons have interviewed Morris for the job, but Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy and San Francisco's Robert Saleh are also on their list of candidates. The new coach and GM also must determine Matt Ryan’s future. Do they rebuild around him, use him as a bridge and draft his replacement? The 35-year-old Ryan owns a rich contract that could be challenging to move, but not entirely impossible.
How do they better support Burrow?
Joe Burrow impressed as a rookie, but the Bengals did an awful job of protecting him and now he’s recovering from season-ending knee surgery. Better pass protection, both talent and scheme-wise are a must. The Bengals’ defense also needs pass-rushing help to ease pressure on the offense.
Who’s the quarterback?
Carson Wentz or Jalen Hurts? They’re heavily invested in Wentz, but he played poorly this year, and Hurts (their second-round pick this year) gave the team a spark. But he wasn’t perfect either. Media reports say Wentz wants to be traded. But Doug Pederson said he’s committed (for now) to helping the once-promising passer get back on track.
Who to call this time?
The Lions are again looking for a head coach and GM. This hire will be their seventh head coach in the last 20 years. The Ford family needs a decision-making team that can at last bring stability and direction. Saleh ranks among the coaches reportedly atop the list, and they have interest in members of the Seahawks front office.
Do they need a QB?
Teddy Bridgewater put up career numbers in his first season as a full-time starter since 2015. But the Panthers went 4-10; their offense wasn’t as potent as they’d hoped. After he threw two interceptions Sunday, Bridgewater was benched for P.J. Walker, who proceeded to throw three more picks. Bridgewater already is fielding questions about his future but says he’ll prepare as if the job remains his.
Do they need a QB?
Familiar theme. Drew Lock regressed in his second season, posting the lowest completion percentage of any quarterback who attempted 250 passes or more this season. He also had 16 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.
Can they re-sign Dak?
Any questions about Dak Prescott’s worth were answered this season as the Cowboys offense went from formidable to feeble once the QB was lost for the season. Prescott’s belief that he deserves a pay day like the top passers in the league were only strengthened. Will Jerry Jones finally open up the checkbook? Or will Dallas tag Prescott a second straight season? Or, will they go with a bargain like Andy Dalton, who played better down the stretch, and let Dak walk?
Can they find a No. 1 wideout?
Give Joe Judge credit for his work with this team and how his guys competed throughout the year. A healthy Saquon Barkley will ease pressure on Daniel Jones. But more than anything, the young QB needs a game-changing talent at wide receiver.
Is Jimmy G. their guy?
He helped them reach the Super Bowl last season, but durability is a big knock against Jimmy Garoppolo, and even when healthy, he hasn’t elevated the offense as consistently as the 49ers would like. Garoppolo is owed a lot of money the next two years, however, there’s not a huge dead cap hit if Kyle Shanahan elects to find a more durable, more effective option.
The Chargers fired Anthony Lynn although his team won its last four games of the season. A 33-31 record and just one playoff appearance in four years wasn’t good enough. Lynn’s replacement inherits a talented young star in quarterback Justin Herbert, who just set rookie record for passing touchdowns (31) and second-most passing yards ever (4,336)
Can they fix their defensive and offensive lines?
The Vikings had the quarterback and weapons for a better offense. But they struggled to keep Kirk Cousins upright, and their defense failed to consistently pressure opposing passers. Fixing both would restore them to playoff ranks.
Who’s their QB?
Is Bill Belichick done with Cam? Does he keep him around and finally spend a high draft pick on a franchise QB? Could he figure out how to get Jimmy Garoppolo back from the 49ers? Regardless of the route he takes to finding Brady’s true successor, Belichick absolutely has to give that quarterback an upgraded collection of wideouts and tight ends.
Can they protect Murray?
Kyler Murray's sack total dramatically decreased from 48 as a rookie to 27 in Year 2. But a lot of that was because he played smarter. Kliff Kingsbury still must do more to protect his young quarterback. Murray is an electrifying talent but wasn't the same after getting banged up, and the Cardinals fell out of the playoff picture.
Who can fix the defense?
Gruden fired Paul Guenther with four games left. The coach was fed up with the continued struggles of a unit that hasn’t ranked in the top half of the league in nearly two decades. So, finding a capable replacement ranks among the leading offseason priorities for Gruden, who is 19-29 in his three seasons back with the Raiders and remains in search of his first winning season or playoff appearance.
Is Tua their guy?
Brian Flores turned the keys over to Miami’s fifth overall pick six weeks into the season, but he kept yanking them back and inserting Ryan Fitzpatrick when the going got tough. Sunday in a do-or-die situation, and with Fitzpatrick on the COVID list, Tua Tagovailoa had his worst outing of the year. The Dolphins lost to Buffalo in a blowout and missed the playoffs. Flores must decide if a full offseason and training camp are enough to help Tua develop into the franchise quarterback they viewed him as in the spring. If he’s not, Miami must decide whether to use Houston’s first-round pick (third overall) on another quarterback.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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